I’m dealing with a headache while posting this preview, and damned if it doesn’t remind me of arguing with NFL pundits as the 2010s began.
My opinion of Tim Tebow in the National Football League created the worst of all possible scenarios. Unlike 70% of the public, I didn’t think Timmy was the worst quarterback ever to play the sport. Unlike another 30%, I didn’t think he was 1 or 2 seasons away from a Hall-of-Fame bid. Such down-the-middle views allowed Tebow-haters and Tebow fans alike to mock and ridicule my wild left-field analysis that the former Denver Bronco was not the greatest nor the awfullest player in NFL history.
But if I was attracted to what Denver was doing at the time, it was less about Tebowmania and more about the introduction of 11-on-11 option running schemes (and run-heavy play calling) into a sports genre that experts had branded a “passing league” for decades. Timmy and his worst-ever/best-ever 9-7 record as a starter was soon laughed out of professional pigskin. But the Read-Option remained, and coaches began using sophisticated run-designs to make up for deficiencies throwing the ball.
Hard-liners held hard to the line. Pete Prisco of CBS Sports – who loves boring, generic football so much that he openly campaigned for dual-threat QBs to be injured on-purpose by NFL linebackers – tweeted me at the time “it’s the only way to win.” “What’s that, Pete?” I asked. “Throwing it,” he replied. 2 years later Russell Wilson and the Seahawks destroyed Peyton Manning and the Broncos with a run-heavy style in the Super Bowl.
Prisco works at CBS where anything from the past can be forgotten or ret-conned as deemed convenient. But I haven’t forgotten. The “experts” were wrong…and 2019 is proving them wrong all over again.
San Francisco has an excellent ground attack, an excellent defense, and a perfect record in November. The 49ers are illustrating Vince Lombardi’s maxim that football will always fundamentally be a running game.
Accurate passing is still important, but the fortunes of pocket-passing QBs (and even dual-threat QBs) are often inextricably tied to the health of an offensive line and its run-blocking ability. Mitch Trubisky of the Chicago Bears was praised as “coming into his own” when Chicago was running well earlier this season. Now that the Monsters of the Midway are blocking like a bunch of subway turnstiles, Trubisky is suddenly considered a poor passer again. Not that 6-man boxes and teed-off DEs have anything to do with that, eh?
Let’s look at a handful of this weekend’s NFL match-ups with OL, offensive backfield, and blocking efficiency firmly in-mind.
After all, the more things change, the more you’ve got to remember Lombardi’s principles…or lose lots of Sunday and Monday wagers.
Detroit Lions at Chicago Bears
Cold and gusting wind will portend late-Sunday snow in the Windy City, and potentially hand a victory to the Monsters of the Midway if the visiting Lions (+3) don’t play their cards exactly right.
Detroit’s passing game ranks 3rd in the NFL with 312.4 YPG. Stafford will play his 150th game in his career on Sunday, and already holds the league record for passing yards and completions through 150 games. Kenny Golladay is emerging as one of the best receivers in the game this season, racking up 640 yards and 7 touchdowns. Marvin Jones is also still getting it done, leading the team with 42 receptions. But everything else is a mess. Detroit has been prone to penalties and turnovers, plagued by bad calls, and ruined by inconsistent defense. It’s a classic scenario where a team’s flashy finesse style makes fans think they ought to be winning more often, leading to frustration and coach-bashing that may or may not be justified.
Speaking of coaches, Matt Nagy is starting to run the ball a little bit more in an attempt to extend some drives and help his Bears out of a slump. While David Montgomery of Chicago is starting to look like an every-down back, he had a rough time against the stout Eagles run defense last week. The rookie did punch in 2 touchdowns to bring his season total to 5, but averaged just 2.9 YPC on 14 carries. Detroit’s run defense has been rhymes-with-bliss poor at times, though, and the RB could see more daylight soon.
Obviously the forbidding weather will tend to hurt the pass-first visitors more than the Bears. But there could also be subtle factors in the kicking game that will affect the outcome. 2 of the best in the league will be returning kicks. Both teams will have their hands full trying to contain kick returns if the PKs cannot get it into the end zone and earn touchbacks. There have only been 4 kick return touchdowns in the NFL this season, and Cordarrelle Patterson of the Bears and Jamal Agnew of the Lions are on that short list.
Finally, there’s Trubisky to worry about – a player who is trashed to a degree out-of-proportion to his actual issues on the field. The controversial QB was well below-par vs Philadelphia, but he’s just not the type of player who’s going to thrive when the tailbacks are spinning wheels. Ironically, though, Trubisky had a nice outing against New Orleans 2 games ago despite Chicago’s ground game looking even worse.
Detroit is a high-powered and fast offense if nothing else, and the Lions will probably hurt the Bears with the short passing game on early drives. Chicago can fight back with the run and the occasional downfield pass, and Trubisky will finally get a chance to help convert some 3rd-and-short down & distances with his legs as well as his arm. The Bears know how to score points on a frigid day, and the Lions know how to score points…period.
Pick: Over (41)
Buffalo Bills at Cleveland Browns
Buffalo (+145) is clearly a run-first team, and fans have been watching a changing of the guard at the RB position in favor of youth over experience. Rookie Devin Singletary has finally supplanted the ageless Frank Gore in terms of snaps over the last couple of weeks, and last week Singletary had his best game to date with a 20-95-1 stat line. Meanwhile, Gore has rushed for just 49 yards on 20 carries in his last 2 games.
The Bills have a formidable defensive duo in speedy edge-rusher Jerry Hughes and DT Jordan Phillips, who leads the squad with 6 sacks. On top of that, they have a pair of expert tackling safeties on the back end in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, who have already combined for 61 tackles and 3 forced fumbles. Buffalo’s defense ranks 3rd in the NFL in points allowed with an average of just 16.375 PPG.
So why would Cleveland be favored to whip a solid and steady team which is doing all of the little things that the Browns screw up on a weekly basis? Since beating the Ravens 40-25 in Week 4, Freddie Kitchens’ bunch has hit a tough stretch of the schedule, suffering 4 straight losses in a row. Baker Mayfield has struggled enough to drop to 19th-ranked QB in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. The 2nd-year quarterback’s QBR has dropped to 71.3, and his TD/INT ratio is a dismal 7:12. Mayfield is not getting any help from his offensive line either, as he is getting sacked close to 3 times per game. But you can’t say his indecision in the pocket isn’t to blame as well. Opposing players are taking delight in cutting the brash signal-caller down to size.
There is no logical reason for Cleveland to be favored in this contest at all.
Pick: Buffalo to win
Miami Dolphins at Indianapolis Colts
Jacoby Brissett’s absence (made official for Week 10 on Saturday morning) could actually help focus the Indianapolis Colts (-11.5) and enable the club to cover vs visiting Miami on Sunday.
Indianapolis is a fragile team without a superstar at QB or many superstars period. But the Colts (“da Coats” as ex-jocks in the announcing booth call them) can expect to prevail by at least 2 touchdowns this week. A competent NFL starting lineup tends to look strong against preseason-level lineups like Miami’s because pigskin is always relative.
Besides, it’s all Miami coaches can do to get a group of going-through-the-motions professionals to prepare for 1 quarterback in a given week – chances are the Dolphins’ DBs are spending more time on the phone with their agents than looking at film of backup QBs. If anything, they looked at Hoyer’s epic pick-6 last week and laughed. That could help the veteran journeyman more than anything on Sunday.
Pick: Colts ATS
Minnesota Vikings at Dallas Cowboys (SNF)
Key injuries could hamper Minnesota’s chances to get to 7-3. WR Adam Thielen has already been ruled out, and Kirk Cousins’ offense will miss his precise route-running and blocking. Minnesota is dealing with a huge injury on the defensive front too as run-stuffing DT Linval Joseph has been nixed from the lineup for Sunday night.
Stopping Ezekiel Elliott is already a tough task, and turning the trick without Joseph will be difficult. Zeke rumbled for 139 yards on 23 carries vs the Giants and could be in line for another solid game on the ground against a less-than-100% front line playing on the road. CB Trae Waynes is also questionable for the visitors.If there is any trend in favor of Minnesota this week, the Vikings are 3-0 against the NFC East this season, beating all 3 opponents by at least 10 points.
Dallas (-3) has beaten-up on NFC East opponents too, compiling a 4-0 record against division foes…but America’s Team is just 1-3 when facing anyone else outside their division. QB Dak Prescott will also be guiding a wounded supporting cast of his own as Amari Cooper is battling knee and ankle injuries.
Dallas likes to run and play power-football, but I’ve got a hunch Jason Garrett will want to open up and take-advantage of Minnesota’s defensive injuries before the Vikings can adjust. The Cowboy defense tends to play a lot better with a lead in games like this, and you can expect Cousins to become frustrated by the 4th quarter.
Pick: Cowboys ATS
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers (MNF)
Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers didn’t skip a beat after losing 2 key pieces of the running game, and both are expected to return to action this week. Tackle Joe Staley may return to anchor the line for the 1st time since breaking his fibula in Week 2. FB Kyle Jusczcyk has practiced in0full and will lead the way for Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman. The 49ers currently rank 2nd in the NFL in rushing yards per game.
Jimmy Garappolo had to chuck it around vs Arizona last week however, and threw for 317 and 4 TDs in an excellent performance against a defense that Patrick Peterson is now suiting-up for. It helped that the defense – allowing less than 13 points on average – defended Kyler Murray stubbornly when it counted.
Seattle’s defense has matched San Francisco with 16 take-aways, but overall the Seahawks have shown some vulnerability. 7 of Seattle’s 9 games have been decided by 1 possession including 6 of the NFC West club’s victories. The Seahawks have won 2 straight games since losing 30-16 at home to Baltimore, though, and Russell Wilson’s 2019-20 MVP campaign continues (and Pete Prisco never said those things he said about #3).
We’re not used to watching Seattle out-score its opponents in shoot-outs rather than outlast them in defensive struggles. The phenomenon has helped push the Over/Under total to a healthy (47.5) for Monday Night Football.
But not only are NFC West rivalry games often low-scoring grudge matches, handicappers are forgetting that an improved running attack from San Francisco could actually tamp-down total points as the 49ers choose to pound the rock more often and work to keep Wilson off the field as much as possible.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.